Monday, January 23, 2012

A Plague on Both Your Houses: A Guest Blog by Athena Andreadis


Don’t you know
They’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution
– Tracy Chapman
In James Tiptree’s "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" three male astronauts are thrown forward in time and return to an earth in which an epidemic has led to the extinction of men. They perceive a society that needs firm (male) guidance to restore correct order and linear progress. In fact, the society is a benevolent non-coercive non-hierarchical anarchy with adequate and stable resources; genetic engineering and cloning are advanced, spaceships are a given, there’s an inhabited Lunar base and multiple successful expeditions to Venus and Mars. One of the men plans to bring the women back under god’s command (with him as proxy) by applying Pauline precepts. Another plans to rut endlessly in a different kind of paradise. The women, after giving them a long rope, decide they won’t resurrect the XY genotype.
The skirmish in the ongoing war about contemporary fantasy between Leo Grin and Joe Abercrombie reminds me of Tiptree’s story. Grin and Abercrombie argued over fantasy as art, social construct and moral fable totally oblivious to the relevant achievements of half of humanity – closer to ninety percent, actually, when you take into account the settings of the works they discussed. No non-male non-white non-Anglosaxon fantasy writers were mentioned in their exchanges and in almost all of the reactions to their posts (I found only two partial exceptions).
I expected this from Grin. After all, he wrote his essay under the auspices of Teabagger falsehood-as-fact generator Andrew Breitbart. His “argument” can be distilled to “The debasement of heroic fantasy is a plot of college-educated liberals!” On the other hand, Abercrombie’s “liberalism” reminds me of the sixties free-love dictum that said “Women can assume all positions as long as they’re prone.” The Grin camp (henceforth Fathers) conflates morality with religiosity and hearkens nostalgically back to Tolkien who essentially retold Christian and Norse myths, even if he did it well. The Abercrombie camp (henceforth Sons) equates grittiness with grottiness and channels Howard – incidentally, a basic error by Grin who put Tolkien and Howard in the same category in his haste to shoehorn all of today’s fantasy into the “decadent” slot. In fact, Abercrombie et al. are Howard’s direct intellectual descendants, although Grin’s two idols were equally reactionary in class-specific ways. Fathers and Sons are nevertheless united in celebrating “manly” men along the lines demarcated by Tiptree.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I enjoy playing RPGs in many guises. But even for games – let alone for reading – I prefer constructs that are nuanced and, equally importantly, worlds in which I can see myself living and working. Both camps write stories set in medieval worlds whose protagonists are essentially Anglosaxon white men with a soupçon of Norse or Celt to spice the bland gruel. To name just a few examples, this is true of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Howard’s Conan stories, Moorcock’s Elric saga, Leiber’s Fafhrd series, Jordan’s Wheel of Time toe-bruisers, Martin’s fast-diminishing-returns Fire and Ice cycle. The sole difference is approach, which gets mistaken for outlook. If I may use po-mo terms, the Fathers represent constipation, the Sons diarrhea; Fathers the sacred, Sons the profane – in strictly masculinist terms. In either universe, women are deemed polluting (that is, distracting from bromances) or furniture items. The fact that even male directors of crowd-pleasers have managed to create powerful female heroes, from Jackson’s Éowyn to Xena (let alone the women in wuxia films), highlight the tame and regressive nature of “daring” male-written fantasy.
Under the cover of high-mindedness, the Fathers posit that worthy fantasy must obey the principles of abrahamic religions: a rigid, stratified society where everyone knows their place, the color of one’s skin determines degree of goodness, governments are autocratic and there is a Manichean division between good and evil: the way of the dog, a pyramidal construct where only alpha males fare well and are considered fully human. The Sons, under the cover of subversive (if only!) deconstruction, posit worlds that embody the principles of a specific subset of pagan religions: a society permanently riven by discord and random cruelty but whose value determinants still come from hierarchical thinking of the feudal variety: the way of the baboon, another (repeat after me) pyramidal construct where only alpha males fare well and are considered fully human. Both follow Campbell’s impoverished, pseudo-erudite concepts of the hero’s quest: the former group accepts them, the latter rejects them but only as the younger son who wants the perks of the first-born. Both think squarely within a very narrow box.

Other participants in this debate already pointed out that Tolkien is a pessimist and Howard a nihilist, that outstanding earlier writers wrote amoral works (Dunsany was mentioned; I’d add Peake and Donaldson) and that the myths which form the base of most fantasy are riddled with grisly violence. In other words, it looks like Grin at least hasn’t read many primary sources and both his knowledge and his logic are terminally fuzzy, as are those of his supporters.


A prominent example was the accusation from one of Grin’s acolytes that contemporary fantasy is obsessed with balance which is “foreign to the Western temperament” (instead of, you know, ever thrusting forward). He explicitly conflated Western civilization with European Christendom, which should automatically disqualify him from serious consideration. Nevertheless, I will point out that pagan Hellenism is as much a cornerstone of Western civilization as Christianity, and Hellenes prized balance. The concept of “Midhén ághan” (nothing in excess) was crucial in Hellenes’ self-definition: they watered their wine, ate abstemiously, deemed body and mind equally important and considered unbridled appetites and passions detriments to living the examined life. At the same time, they did not consider themselves sinful and imperfect in the Christian sense, although Hellenic myths carry strong strains of defiance (Prometheus) and melancholy (their afterworld, for one).
Frankly, the Grin-Abercrombie fracas reminds me of a scene in Willow. At the climax of the film, while the men are hacking at each other down at the courtyard, the women are up at the tower hurling thunderbolts. By the time the men come into the castle, the battle has been waged and won by women’s magic.
So enough already about Fathers and Sons in their temples and potties. Let’s spend our time more usefully and pleasantly discussing the third member of the trinity. Before she got neutered, her name was Sophia (Wisdom) or Shekinah (Presence). Let’s celebrate some people who truly changed fantasy – to its everlasting gain, as is the case with SF.

My list will be very partial and restricted to authors writing in English and whose works I’ve read, which shows we are dealing with an embarrassment of riches. I can think of countless women who have written paradigm-shifting heroic fantasy, starting with Emily Brontë who wrote about a world of women heroes in those tiny hand-sewn diaries. Then came trailblazers Catherine Moore, Mary Stewart and André Norton. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is another gamechanger (although her gender-specific magic is problematic, as I discussed in Crossed Genres) and so is her ongoing Western Shores series. Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni cycle is as fine a medieval magic saga as any. We have weavers of new myths: Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, Meredith Ann Pierce, Alma Alexander; and tellers of old myths from fresh perspectives: Tanith Lee, Diana Paxson, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Terri Windling, Emma Bull, C. J. Cherryh, Christine Lucas.
Then there’s Elizabeth Lynn, with her Chronicles of Tornor and riveting Ryoka stories. Marie Jakober, whose Even the Stones have haunted me ever since I read it. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, whose heroic prehistoric fantasies have never been bested. Jacqueline Carey, who re-imagined the Renaissance from Eire to Nubia and made a courtesan into a swashbuckler in the first Kushiel trilogy, showing a truly pagan universe in the bargain. This without getting into genre-cracking mythmakers like Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) and Louise Erdrich.
These authors share several attributes: they have formidable writing skills and honor their sources even as they transmute them. Most importantly, they break the tired old tropes and conventional boundaries of heroic fantasy and unveil truly new vistas. They venture past medieval settings, hierarchical societies, monotheistic religions, rigid moralities, “edgy” gore, Tin John chest beatings, and show us how rich and exciting fantasy can become when it stops being timid and recycling stale recipes. As one of the women in Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston” says: “We sing a lot. Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs, love songs – everything.”

Everything.

Athena Andreadis brief bio
Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT.  She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia.  She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics.  Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, After Hours, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, The SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.



Images: Éowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan (Miranda Otto) in The Two Towers; Sonja, vampire paladin (Rhona Mitra) in Rise of the Lycans; Yu Shu Lien, Wudan warrior (Michelle Yeoh) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

33 comments:

Terri-Lynne said...

"I can think of countless women who have written paradigm-shifting heroic fantasy..."

This heartens me, Athena, because we have had a few discussions in HoF that have gone the opposite way. I fear there are few who could think of "countless." That you can proves others can too, and I think that stretches into "many others," because they may not be the first to come to mind, but there are plenty.

Now for them to become the first that comes to the many's mind, rather than having to think hard.

Clint said...

This is some interesting stuff!

One overtone I most certainly agree with you on is the overuse of Tolkien and Howard. I am a fan of both, but am honestly sick to death of their copycats. For example, Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks both made careers out of taking Tolkien's plot for LotR and slapping on their own coats of paint. L. Sprague DeCamp made a living out of Howards old bones. Now, considering Tolkien borrowed not only from Finnish oral tradition but also William Morris and the entire Pre-Raphaelite movement, and Howard borrowed directly from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles and Celtic myth, their roots already ran deep, or they had ripped off somebody else.

I'm not sure why either writer had a tree-house sort of rule. In the case of Howard it could have been based on his own life, a dominating, inappropriate mother in his life whom he was a primary caretaker for, and the genre of Weird fiction, which at the time was as geared towards males almost as exclusively as pornography. Maybe women didn't sell, though Howard did use strong female characters from time to time (which are sometimes quaint or progressive depending on the tale), or maybe he wrote what he knew, avoiding topics which would not have been so much about vital young women, but giving old ladies sponge baths.

Tolkien's world was very much the Edwardian, even late Victorian world, where women abscond to their parlors and allow the men to drink snifters of brandy and smoke cigars, thinking really big thoughts (TM). It's very much the same culture that allowed the Bronte children to write crazy amounts of fantasy, instead of working in coal mines like other children.

Why then is it so difficult for writers to come up with new ideas? I don't think it is. I think the onus is on the publishers, who see that familiar stories sell. That's why we get Marion Zimmer Bradley's post-modern Arthurian legends, and nearly any other writer whose fingers ever touched a keyboard retyping The Hobbit or Conan every chance they get. I think that trend is ending, and we will see a rise of more urban fantasy. The majority of that will be geared toward women, with women's voices, since 2/3rds of the readers out there are now women. Publishers will go where the money is, just like they always have.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint--I can ALWAYS count on you to have something fabulous to say.
:)
Just had to put that out there.

Clint said...

This is some interesting stuff!

One overtone I most certainly agree with you on is the overuse of Tolkien and Howard. I am a fan of both, but am honestly sick to death of their copycats. For example, Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks both made careers out of taking Tolkien's plot for LotR and slapping on their own coats of paint. L. Sprague DeCamp made a living out of Howards old bones. Now, considering Tolkien borrowed not only from Finnish oral tradition but also William Morris and the entire Pre-Raphaelite movement, and Howard borrowed directly from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles and Celtic myth, their roots already ran deep, or they had ripped off somebody else.

I'm not sure why either writer had a tree-house sort of rule. In the case of Howard it could have been based on his own life, a dominating, inappropriate mother in his life whom he was a primary caretaker for, and the genre of Weird fiction, which at the time was as geared towards males almost as exclusively as pornography. Maybe women didn't sell, though Howard did use strong female characters from time to time (which are sometimes quaint or progressive depending on the tale), or maybe he wrote what he knew, avoiding topics which would not have been so much about vital young women, but giving old ladies sponge baths.

Tolkien's world was very much the Edwardian, even late Victorian world, where women abscond to their parlors and allow the men to drink snifters of brandy and smoke cigars, thinking really big thoughts (TM). It's very much the same culture that allowed the Bronte children to write crazy amounts of fantasy, instead of working in coal mines like other children.

Why then is it so difficult for writers to come up with new ideas? I don't think it is. I think the onus is on the publishers, who see that familiar stories sell. That's why we get Marion Zimmer Bradley's post-modern Arthurian legends, and nearly any other writer whose fingers ever touched a keyboard retyping The Hobbit or Conan every chance they get. I think that trend is ending, and we will see a rise of more urban fantasy. The majority of that will be geared toward women, with women's voices, since 2/3rds of the readers out there are now women. Publishers will go where the money is, just like they always have.

(Thank you Terri and Athena for recovering this comment after the internets ate it)

Anonymous said...

This is some interesting stuff!

One overtone I most certainly agree with you on is the overuse of Tolkien and Howard. I am a fan of both, but am honestly sick to death of their copycats. For example, Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks both made careers out of taking Tolkien's plot for LotR and slapping on their own coats of paint. L. Sprague DeCamp made a living out of Howards old bones. Now, considering Tolkien borrowed not only from Finnish oral tradition but also William Morris and the entire Pre-Raphaelite movement, and Howard borrowed directly from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles and Celtic myth, their roots already ran deep, or they had ripped off somebody else.

I'm not sure why either writer had a tree-house sort of rule. In the case of Howard it could have been based on his own life, a dominating, inappropriate mother in his life whom he was a primary caretaker for, and the genre of Weird fiction, which at the time was as geared towards males almost as exclusively as pornography. Maybe women didn't sell, though Howard did use strong female characters from time to time (which are sometimes quaint or progressive depending on the tale), or maybe he wrote what he knew, avoiding topics which would not have been so much about vital young women, but giving old ladies sponge baths.

Tolkien's world was very much the Edwardian, even late Victorian world, where women abscond to their parlors and allow the men to drink snifters of brandy and smoke cigars, thinking really big thoughts (TM). It's very much the same culture that allowed the Bronte children to write crazy amounts of fantasy, instead of working in coal mines like other children.

Why then is it so difficult for writers to come up with new ideas? I don't think it is. I think the onus is on the publishers, who see that familiar stories sell. That's why we get Marion Zimmer Bradley's post-modern Arthurian legends, and nearly any other writer whose fingers ever touched a keyboard retyping The Hobbit or Conan every chance they get. I think that trend is ending, and we will see a rise of more urban fantasy. The majority of that will be geared toward women, with women's voices, since 2/3rds of the readers out there are now women. Publishers will go where the money is, just like they always have.

(Okay, third time's a charm--Stupid internets!)

--Clint
http://wendigomountain.livejournal.com

Clint said...

I think the web is out to get me today.

--Clint

This is some interesting stuff!

One overtone I most certainly agree with you on is the overuse of Tolkien and Howard. I am a fan of both, but am honestly sick to death of their copycats. For example, Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks both made careers out of taking Tolkien's plot for LotR and slapping on their own coats of paint. L. Sprague DeCamp made a living out of Howards old bones. Now, considering Tolkien borrowed not only from Finnish oral tradition but also William Morris and the entire Pre-Raphaelite movement, and Howard borrowed directly from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles and Celtic myth, their roots already ran deep, or they had ripped off somebody else.

I'm not sure why either writer had a tree-house sort of rule. In the case of Howard it could have been based on his own life, a dominating, inappropriate mother in his life whom he was a primary caretaker for, and the genre of Weird fiction, which at the time was as geared towards males almost as exclusively as pornography. Maybe women didn't sell, though Howard did use strong female characters from time to time (which are sometimes quaint or progressive depending on the tale), or maybe he wrote what he knew, avoiding topics which would not have been so much about vital young women, but giving old ladies sponge baths.

Tolkien's world was very much the Edwardian, even late Victorian world, where women abscond to their parlors and allow the men to drink snifters of brandy and smoke cigars, thinking really big thoughts (TM). It's very much the same culture that allowed the Bronte children to write crazy amounts of fantasy, instead of working in coal mines like other children.

Why then is it so difficult for writers to come up with new ideas? I don't think it is. I think the onus is on the publishers, who see that familiar stories sell. That's why we get Marion Zimmer Bradley's post-modern Arthurian legends, and nearly any other writer whose fingers ever touched a keyboard retyping The Hobbit or Conan every chance they get. I think that trend is ending, and we will see a rise of more urban fantasy. The majority of that will be geared toward women, with women's voices, since 2/3rds of the readers out there are now women. Publishers will go where the money is, just like they always have.

Terri-Lynne said...

Due to some strange, cyber black hole, Clint Harris' fabulous comment just won't post. Thus, I am posting for him. Here you go!

This is some interesting stuff!

One overtone I most certainly agree with you on is the overuse of Tolkien and Howard. I am a fan of both, but am honestly sick to death of their copycats. For example, Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks both made careers out of taking Tolkien's plot for LotR and slapping on their own coats of paint. L. Sprague DeCamp made a living out of Howards old bones. Now, considering Tolkien borrowed not only from Finnish oral tradition but also William Morris and the entire Pre-Raphaelite movement, and Howard borrowed directly from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles and Celtic myth, their roots already ran deep, or they had ripped off somebody else.

I'm not sure why either writer had a tree-house sort of rule. In the case of Howard it could have been based on his own life, a dominating, inappropriate mother in his life whom he was a primary caretaker for, and the genre of Weird fiction, which at the time was as geared towards males almost as exclusively as pornography. Maybe women didn't sell, though Howard did use strong female characters from time to time (which are sometimes quaint or progressive depending on the tale), or maybe he wrote what he knew, avoiding topics which would not have been so much about vital young women, but giving old ladies sponge baths.

Tolkien's world was very much the Edwardian, even late Victorian world, where women abscond to their parlors and allow the men to drink snifters of brandy and smoke cigars, thinking really big thoughts (TM). It's very much the same culture that allowed the Bronte children to write crazy amounts of fantasy, instead of working in coal mines like other children.

Why then is it so difficult for writers to come up with new ideas? I don't think it is. I think the onus is on the publishers, who see that familiar stories sell. That's why we get Marion Zimmer Bradley's post-modern Arthurian legends, and nearly any other writer whose fingers ever touched a keyboard retyping The Hobbit or Conan every chance they get. I think that trend is ending, and we will see a rise of more urban fantasy. The majority of that will be geared toward women, with women's voices, since 2/3rds of the readers out there are now women. Publishers will go where the money is, just like they always have.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, Terri. I'm almost afraid to say anything else for fear of my luck with the interwebs not holding.

--Clint

Three With Eyes That See said...

There is something funky going on. Our guest poster's comments are being eaten by the same black hole! Here is her comment to Clint. I will try to get this figured out, in the meantime.

Tolkien also borrowed freely from Norse mythology: the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit come straight from one of the sagas, and the story of Húrin's children is another direct lift: he just renamed the two principals and tweaked it to fit his morality -- he gave the woman convenient amnesia so she was robbed of agency, and had her commit virtuous suicide while pregnant.

I know about the life circumstances of both Howard and Tolkien. Incidentally, a terrific film was made about Howard based on Novalyne Price's memoirs: The Whole Wide World, with Renée Zellweger as Price and Vincent d' Onofrio as Howard.

Tolkien was late Victorian, the Brontës were late Georgian (and much influenced by even earlier authors like Walter Scott and Lord Byron). Very different eras. They would not have gone down the coal mines anyway, because they were a curate's children. They were educated to become (as all briefly did) tutors and governesses for the upper classes.

Of Emily Brontë, her Belgian teacher said that she had the mind of an engineer and the courage of an arctic explorer. She once cauterized her arm with a hot iron, after being bitten by a dog. These were not airy-fairy Victorian ladies.

Publishers go where they think the money will be, using least-common-denominator thinking. They're almost invariably wrong, but they do succeed in pulling the Overton window down.

And sponge baths notwithstanding, old women can be heroic.

Athena Andreadis said...

A correction to my longer comments: Tolkien was born into the late Edwardian era. This was the same time as Woolf's writing and Impressionist painting -- which shows how regressive he and the pre-Raphaelites were.

Thank you for posting my comment, Terri! The paragraphs in my post also vanished, making it very hard on the eyes!

Three With Eyes That See said...

Very strange--now that one came through and there is sits, all pretty and nice. What the heck is going on!? Ack! Maybe this means it's resolving. If the ghostposts show up, I'll delete accordingly.

I keep fixing the paragraph breaks, and they keep vanishing again. Sorry!

Athena Andreadis said...

Terri, I didn't reply to your original comment.

Women authors come easily to mind when they're 1) read, 2) reviewed, 3) given awards, 4) re/printed in anthologies, 5) taught in courses.

If the majority of reviewers and authors reviewed are Anglo-American men writing about either ersatz-feudal Europe or tourist-view "exotic" cultures, it's no surprise that people can't think of anyone/anything else -- and the tapioca retreads become the expected norm.

Clint said...

I would like to add that one of of the women in Willow bringing down the thunder and lightning, was an old lady. Well, maybe both of them. Though Bavmorda did more to hide this.

And yes on the publishers, though I still have to say that they control more of what is read in Fantasy/SF than we can dream. For every new and original idea that takes hold out there, there are probably 100 that never get published because some editor or agent says "nobody is going to buy this!" And there's a good chance it has more to do with bad writing than it has to do with concept, but publishers willing to drop a story because it's "Weird" don't know their readers very well.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Andrea -

It's always been great in the past to have you stop by HoF for discussions, and now it's fun to have you on board for a guest post.

I'm not familiar with the Grin-Abercrombie feud, but whatever the issues there, it's been interesting, as always, to hear your take on things.

Nice list of authors and stories, too; especially at the end. Thank you!

Athena Andreadis said...

Clint, I wrote about the fact that under the borrowed detritus of Willow there lurks a proto-feminist fable: the king, the prince, the wizard, the heir are all women. The men are either atypical (Willow) or afterthoughts: Le Plus Ça Change…

Karin, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. My name is actually Athena, after the goddess -- although many people conflate my last name (which means Child of the Brave) with the common Saxon name Andrea.

Terri-Lynne said...

Athena--exactly! And...it kind of boggles the mind that there are courses designated: Women in fiction, or Women in literature and what-not, but the bulk of plain old literature classes are mostly male authors, the occasional woman author thrown in.

Like history is, you know, HISTORY, but women's history is its own subject.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Oh goodness, so sorry Athena. I knew that was your first name; don't know why I mixed that up. Blame it on Monday.

Next time I'll just call you 'goddess'. ;)

(And yes, my word verification is PRAIS...)

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

I guess I should also add, as long as we're talking about last names, that Gastreich means, in old German, 'Taster of Wines'.

A proud family tradition since the 14th century, and one I'm happy to continue today. :)

(And yes, code word this time is "hapeigly")

Terri-Lynne said...

My maiden name, Galluccio, means "little rooster" (little cock if you want to get technical!)

Clint said...

Athena,

Thanks for the link! I read though and though I thought you had many valid points, I have to disagree with one matter. The character of Willow wasn't, in my opinion, androgynous. As a father of three myself, I've been very present in their lives, changed diapers, rocked them to sleep and had other parental concerns for my children. I don't see that these duties are emasculating any more than a love of sports and beer is something that would make a woman more "manly."

That being said, I DO think that Madmartigan was an androgynous character. In one scene he dons women's clothes to escape an angry husband, which he wears throughout the next 2/3 of the film. It never really seems to slow him down.

Athena Andreadis said...

Karin -- I thought Gastreich meant Rich in Guests/Company, but the old meaning is just as lovely!

Terri -- these distinctions serve to reinforce the concept that man=default, woman=manqué other. Mind you, humans are terrific at making distinctions to form easily demarcated clans/tribes/etc, but at this point it no longer serves our species, if it ever did.

Athena Andreadis said...

Who said anything about emasculating, Clint? However, given the customary Hollywood essentialism (and its narrow boxes for each gender), Willow is coded as culturally androgynous; there's also the matter of his small stature, etc. In other words, he's as non-alpha as you can get, but still a hero despite his lack of stock macho markers.

Clint said...

"and its narrow boxes for each gender"

Totally! I'm glad we have Hollywood to define our gender AND cultural stereotypes. :)

Athena Andreadis said...

When you think about it, Willow's wife would have done equally well in his stead. That role truly lacks masculine/ist coding.

Of course, Lucas really dislikes women, as I discussed in my Star Wars critique -- which is another reason why Willow is so surprising.

Kim Vandervort said...

Very interesting post and comments! I'm not familiar either with the debate to which you're referring, but I have to agree with the general commentary that publishers' control often dictates what goes before the eyes of the public. One of the things that makes Hadley Rille Books unique is its bend toward fiction by women, with strong, nuanced female (and male) characters, something we don't see as often as we should in the SFF canon, despite the trends toward more women buying books (and fantasy in particular) than men.

I would suggest adding Terry Goodkind to your list of heavy tomes of anti-feminist fantasy. I will admit I only got halfway through the first book in his series, but I was put off by Goodkind's predilection for ripping the clothes off and near-raping his heroine-in-peril. As a female reading, I found it distracting and off-putting. However, there are many readers, both male and female, for whom this is no big deal in the grand sweep of the story.

I would have to say, though, while I had initially put Martin's Game of Thrones in the same category as you, I'm rereading the series now and finding his female characters stronger and more nuanced than I did when I picked up the series a few years ago. Does it follow the trends of patriarchal male fantasy ala Tolkien and friends? It does, in the sense that it has a world well-grounded in medieval history, quite accurately described and portrayed. But the ways in which women channel and utilize their own power is fascinating and keeps me turning pages. The men also are aware and respectful of women's power. Ned Stark's decision, for example, to give Arya lessons in sword play not because she has to, but because she wants and shows an aptitude for them, is a definite departure from traditional thinking about women in fantasy.

Interesting discussion. Thanks for guest posting!

Athena Andreadis said...

Kim, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I didn't include Goodkind because I had the same reaction to his work as you did. So formally I haven't read him, whereas I slogged through the others (not all of Jordan, mind you, that would take longer than the lifespan of the universe; but enough to conclude that if you cook gruel it will never transmute to meat, let alone truffles).

Regarding George Martin's doorstoppers, I think good historical fiction is far better than his stuff. In fact, good history is way better than his stuff (for example: Barbara Tuchman's justly famous The Calamitous Fourteenth Century or Antonia Fraser's more pop-flavored but still solid Warrior Queens).

There are other problems with Martin beyond the semi-constant rapes as devices to advance plot or show how gritty he is: the names, for one, which are like chewing on wet cardboard (Westeros? Drogo? *snerk*); the presentation of everyone beyond Westeros as dark barbarians. Etc, etc -- all the cliché boxes have been ticked in that series. Given that Martin could write well once (In the Lost Lands, The Portraits of His Children) this denotes a certain cynicism and/or condescension regarding his readers' capacities.

And, of course, if readers of this stuff only read within this zone and copy already poor antecedents when they become writers themselves, the downward spiral will continue unabated. Bottom line: you can't have it both ways. If this (sub)genre wants to be taken seriously as literature, it has to pull up its socks. If not, the complaints about lack of respect and being tragically misunderstood are redundant.

Kim Vandervort said...

I'm not sure what you find objectionable about Martin's naming conventions aside from personal taste; to me, they are fictional fantasy names and consistent in their naming conventions according to familial ties and geographic and cultural boundaries. I disagree with you about his treatment of other cultures as "barbarians." I think that idea is fairly consistent with human nature: we fear what we do not understand and assign stereotypes and stigmas accordingly. What Martin does is show BOTH sides of the argument. While the people of Westeros believe Drogo's people barbarians, the immersion of the Targaryen siblings into their culture shows a very different side. Viserys fails to adapt his preconceived notions and cultural attitudes, and is punished for them, while Danaerys comes to embrace this "barbarian" culture and find beauty in it. This calls the reader to question his/ her preconceived notions about the very idea of "barbarian" and who is/ should be the victor in any war.

In the end, I do believe many male authors provide a fantastic contribution to the genre, especially Tolkien, without whom fantasy may not have become as mainstream as it is today. We should not discount their contributions in order to advocate change. We shouldn't silence their voices in order for ours to be heard; instead, we should raise ours alongside, as companions. Men and women are yin and yang; we need both in fantasy as we do in life.

Athena Andreadis said...

That's where we disagree, Kim: the two genders are not yin and yang. The variability within each is wider than the one between them, both biologically and culturally.

As for conlangs and namings, my view is that monolingual people who do this would do well to ask those who speak relevant languages how they sound, especially if they try for faux-Chinese, faux-Gaelic, faux-Hellenic, etc. Most of the ones in today's fantasy indicate that the writers' reading consists exclusively of fantasy of the last ten years or so (except for Tolkien, naturally).

Kim Vandervort said...

Yes, I do think we have to agree to disagree, though I'm not sure we're operating by the same definitions, which it makes it hard to discuss. My point is that I'm not interested in any fantasy in which one gender is presented as subservient, powerless, or less than the other. This goes for men, women, transgender, even GLBT. I'm interested in fantasy that acknowledges and praises both male and female power, whether physical, emotional or mental. Of course, one's perception is tainted by what she/he views as power. While I view many of the women in Game of Thrones as having a great deal of power within the constructs of their families and societies, someone else's perception may be that it isn't enough, that the women need to be in control for their power to be validated. That isn't my perception, but it doesn't mean that perception is wrong.

As with anything else, all art and literature is viewed through the filters of the person experiencing them. My filters are simply different from yours. And that's the beautiful thing about good literature: we can all take something different from it.

Likewise, as I've mentioned before, praising change or calling for it doesn't necessitate the wholesale derision of everything that came before.

We may not agree, in the end, but it's been a thought-provoking discussion.

Gustavo said...

Kim, Absolutely spot-on. I think that different filters color many of the disagreements on this particular topic. I personally will never be able to subjugate my appreciation of art to social considerations - I'm just not wired that way.

Of course, if something is bluntly preachy or agenda-driven, I am going to hate it (I think most people are the same in this regard, which is why a lot of the "good, wholesome and inclusive" stuff gets ignored). Likewise if something is a bland rehash of older things, most people aren't going to enjoy it.

Also enjoy Martin's work. It doesn't need to satisfy everyone to be great. Of course, there are people who will hate it (and that's fine too), but there are also people who hate Hemingway (heck, I can easily imagine that there are people right here who hate Hemingway, LOL). Such is life.

batgirl said...

A plug for the late Jo Clayton, a damn fine writer of sf and fantasy with memorable heroines and a fine subversive worldview.
Oh, and her naming was pretty good, too.

And Doris Piserchia - especially Earthchild and Spaceling, which are fast-paced and funny as well as thoughtful and subversive.

Terri-Lynne said...

Books I should add to my ever-growing TBR pile! You add to it way too much, woman!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Wonderful recommendations, batgirl! I especially like that part about Clayton's "fine subversive worldview". I will have to check it out.

Thank you!